Dana Wefer, a newcomer to the board that oversees Hoboken's public housing, was elected by a 5-2 vote on Thursday to a one-year term as the chairwoman. The change took place at the annual reorganization meeting of the Housing Authority's (HHA) Board of Commissioners. Board member David Mello, who also serves as a city councilman, was elected vice-chairman of the board by a 4-3 vote.
Wefer and Mello are both allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who now has a majority on the seven member unpaid board. Before that, the HHA board was the only major board in town without a Zimmer majority.
In recent months, both Mello and Wefer led a campaign to oust former Chairman Rob Davis III, a public housing resident and supporter of paid HHA Executive Director Carmelo Garcia. Garcia has been at odds with Zimmer for over a year, thus rendering the housing board a fierce battleground.
An pair of public housing commissioners unpopular with residents were elected to lead the housing authority’s oversight board for the next year.
But within minutes of her taking control of the meeting, Wefer asked police to remove two residents who had begun verbally berating her following the vote. The residents, who had spoken about housing matters at a City Council meeting the day before, eventually left the meeting peacefully.
One of those removed was not Patricia Waiters, who made controversial remarks at the last meeting (see sidebar). She was present at this meeting as well.
Despite the rough beginning, Wefer said she would work together with residents to improve life in the housing authority, focus on the agency's finances, and tackle what she said were pressing infrastructure issues. She also created a Resident Relations committee to handle residents' short-term, low-cost grievances in order to improve quality of life on a day-to-day basis.
Accusations of racism
Racialized rhetoric has been a recurring theme in the Hoboken political scene throughout the past year as various issues, especially those related to the HHA, have prompted accusations of racism from both Zimmer’s supporters and Garcia’s. A lawsuit filed against Zimmer by Garcia last summer alleged that Zimmer was on a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” because her allies wanted to remove him.
New commissioner appointed
At a City Council meeting the day before, the council majority appointed a new member to the HHA board.
Two housing board candidates -- incumbent Commissioner Eduardo Gonzalez and political newcomer David Denning -- were up for Gonzalez's seat after his term ended in April. Denning was appointed over Gonzales by a 5-4 vote.
Thursday marked Denning’s first board meeting. He voted to elect Wefer chairwoman and Mello vice-chairman.
The vote to appoint Denning was drawn along the usual pro- and anti-Zimmer lines. It spurred heated debate at an otherwise average City Council meeting. Multiple residents of the city's public housing, as well as several council members and local politicians, spoke out in support of Commissioner Gonzalez's reappointment instead of Denning, saying that they felt he was fair, qualified, and had the residents' best interests at heart.
Conversely, residents stated that they did not know Denning and asked the council not to support his appointment only because they felt that Gonzalez's experience would be to their benefit.
In fact, when 1st Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano asked Denning to answer some questions about why he was pursuing the commissioner job, he initially declined to speak.
Castellano, visibly surprised at Denning's decision not to speak, questioned him anyway.
"I'm going to ask the question even though I know I'm not going to get an answer," she said. "What do you think your job will be as a commissioner? It's going to be to say 'yes.' Whenever Dawn Zimmer puts something on the table, you say yes."
After a considerable amount of chastising from Castellano and 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti, Dening did approach the dais and discussed his desire to make the HHA more efficient, accountable, and modern.
"I stand for openness and transparency," he said. "I'm a technology guy; I'd like to make improvements."
When pressed on specific issues currently facing the housing board, including the controversial Vision 20/20 redevelopment plan, which would replace some of the current housing, Dening was less specific.
"There are things I like about 20/20 and things about 20/20 I don't like," he said.
None of the commissioners who voted to appoint Dening -- Mello, Council President Jennifer Giattino, Council Vice-President Ravi Bhalla, Councilman-at-Large Jim Doyle, or Sixth Ward Councilman Peter Cunningham -- gave specific reasons why they were supporting Dening's candidacy. A few said they were impressed with Gonzalez's work during his five-year term.
The debate over whether to appoint Dening or Gonzalez inspired race-related discussion when 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo said an "underlying racism" has guided the board appointments made by Zimmer's council majority.
"There is 100 percent an underlying racism in these appointments," Russo said, to the immediate protest of the council majority.
In a Hoboken Reporter cover story last week, it was noted that the city's most powerful boards are becoming less diverse and lack a representative from a Latin American country, despite the town's Latino population. Occhipinti and Russo both stated that they were disturbed by the statistics published in that story last weekend.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilman says legislative aide should be fired over ‘anti-Semitic’ remarks
City Councilman-at-Large David Mello said at Wednesday’s council meeting that a paid aide to a Hoboken-based state assemblyman should be removed after she made remarks about Jewish people at a public meeting last month. A transcript of the meeting, revealing the remarks, became available this week.
Patricia Waiters serves as a $10,000-per-year aide to newly elected state Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia. Garcia also serves full-time as the paid director of the Hoboken Housing Authority. Waiters’ remarks were made at a heated Housing Authority meeting last month.
At that meeting, Waiters said that since Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who is Jewish, took office, she has been appointing only Jewish people to various city boards. Waiters also said, according to the newly released transcript, "Since Dawn's mayorship, we have a real estate place on every corner. What is his name? Weitzman, Heller, Einstein, every corner okay?"
Waiters said that an examination of contracts awarded under Zimmer would reveal that everyone hired by the mayor is Jewish.
Mello is a City Council member who also sits on the Hoboken Housing Authority board, a seven-member unpaid board whose members help oversee the agency and help oversee Garcia, who is paid. For over a year, Garcia has been at odds with the Zimmer-allied members of the board over various issues.
At Wednesday's council meeting, Mello said that Waiters should be fired from her post as an Assembly aide and said the remarks were anti-Semitic.
Reached by phone late Wednesday night, Garcia said that he was in the bathroom when Waiters made the comments about Jewish people and that he could not fire her over comments he did not bear witness to. He did say that he would review the meeting transcript. But he said he could not punish Waiters, a part-time legislative aide, for statements made on her own time.
Mello said during a tense exchange with Waiters at the council meeting on Wednesday that "the NBA commissioner knows what to do... he should come down here and show [Garcia]."
Mello was referring to the NBA's lifetime ban of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling handed down by Commissioner Adam Silver last week. Sterling was caught on tape saying that he wished his girlfriend would not bring African-Americans to Clippers games.
Mello became particularly heated when he said that he was personally offended by Waiters' comments because members of his wife's family were killed in the Holocaust.
After being asked to leave by the police at the request of Council President Jennifer Giattino, Waiters maintained that her comments were not anti-Semitic. Waiters has accused Mello and other council members allied with Zimmer of racism in the past.